Three Days Missing
My phone is already buzzing with work email as I rush Ethan through his morning routine. Get up. Get dressed. For the love of God, brush your teeth and hair. In none of his eight short years has my son ever been a morning person, and I've never been the most patient of mothers, not even when I didn't have a boss clocking the second I step off the elevator.
Not that stay-at-home moms don't have plenty of stress, but at least then Ethan and I were united in it, members of the same team tiptoeing around the eggshells Andrew left lying all over the house. But this is the habit we've fallen into these past six months, ever since the separation. Ethan dallies and I nag.
"Come on, baby, we gotta go."
His hair is still sticking up where it was pressed against his pillow. His t-shirt is stained and wrinkled, which means he probably plucked it from the dirty pile on the floor. My son is an unapologetic slob. He's uncoordinated and more than a little awkward looking. His ears are too big and his curls are too fickle and his glasses, constantly clouded with fingerprints, never seem to sit straight on his nose.
But I love him with everything inside of me—not despite all his quirks but because of them. If there's one thing Andrew taught me, it's that you can't love only pieces of a person. You have to love all of them, even the ugly parts.
I hustle him down the stairs, down the cramped hallway, and out the back door. Our tiny ranch is not much, but divorce is expensive, and every time my attorney thinks we're getting close, Andrew comes back with another ridiculous ultimatum. The antique side table we bought on our honeymoon. A pair of crystal candlesticks he broke ages ago. The negatives for Ethan's baby pictures. As long as it's not Ethan he wants, I give in to his every demand.
Ethan stops in front of the car, still half asleep. "What are you waiting for? Get in."
He doesn't move. I check the time on my cell—6:27.
"Ethan." When there's no response, I give his shoulder a little jiggle. "Come on, sweetie. Get in the car. Otherwise you'll miss the bus."
Which leaves in exactly thirty-three minutes, from a parking lot across town. Today's destination: Dahlonega, an early gold-rush town an hour north of Atlanta. Ethan's class will be traipsing through mines two hundred feet under the ground, panning for gold and semi-precious stones, sleeping in a cabin under the stars. When he brought the permission form home from school last month, I thought it was an April Fool's joke. What kind of teacher takes a busload of second graders on an overnight trip on purpose?
"But we do it every year," Miss Emma assured me when I questioned her. "We stay at a YMCA summer camp facility so it's perfectly safe. One teacher or chaperone for every five students. The kids look forward to it all semester."
It was the speech I heard her give every second-grade helicopter mom, but in doing so with me, she missed the point. It wasn't Ethan's physical safety I was worried about, but his emotional. Ethan has an IQ of 158, a level of giftedness that comes with a particular set of challenges. This is a kid who's brilliant but socially awkward. An analytical thinker who needs constant stimulation. An insatiable learner with a never-ending stream of questions. His speech, his interests, the way he thinks...his world is so different from his peers that there's practically no point of contact. He's been at Cambridge for two years now and hasn't brought home a single friend. No play dates, no sleepovers. Nothing.
But his class has been learning about the mines all spring, and Miss Emma has filled his bottomless brain with tales of hydraulic sluices and a network of underground tunnels. Lode mining, my son informed me, and up until this morning, he was desperate to see it for himself—despite having never slept in a bed that wasn't under the same roof as me or Andrew. He begged long enough that I caved. I swallowed down my worries and signed the damn form.
He climbs onto the backseat, and I toss him a peanut-free breakfast bar, which he ignores.
"What's wrong, baby? Are you sick?"
"No." He looks at the wrapper and makes a face. "Just not hungry."
"Well, eat it anyway. You'll need the fuel to climb all those steps to get in and out of the mines." The last bit is a deliberate reminder, meant to drum up some of his previous excitement.
But my son is on to me, and the look he gives me is textbook Ethan. Dipped chin. Arched brow. Eyes on the verge of rolling. He heaves a sigh so full-bodied, that it lifts his little body from the chair.
"You're always starving in the morning. Why not today?"
"I don't know." His glasses slip down his face, and he wriggles his nose to push them back up. They're too loose, the fake tortoiseshell too heavy for his head. Ethan is eight, but he's small enough to be six, yet another disadvantage he faces. "I'm just not."
You need to stop coddling him. I hear Andrew's voice as clearly as if he were sitting here, in the passenger's seat beside me. Otherwise that kid will never toughen up.
You need to. He'll never. This is one of Andrew's more impressive accomplishments: he's an expert at assigning blame. He's only been practicing it for years.
But Andrew's not here, and I need to get to work. I can't afford my half of Cambridge Classical Academy's tuition, not with the clock still ticking on this divorce and the stack of bills by the toaster, as terrifying to me as Ethan’s fear of the monsters that live under his bed. My boss doesn't have kids. She doesn't understand that Ethan's little Einstein brain needs longer than others to weigh the pros and cons. I need this job, which means I need to get him on that bus. I start the car and back out of the driveway.
All the way to school, I watch Ethan's expression in the rearview mirror. Not for the first time, I wish the uncoupling between his father and I wasn’t so explosive. That our conversations didn't have to happen in writing and from a minimum physical distance of two hundred feet. The restraining order sure makes co-parenting hard, especially when your Dahlonega-bound son sits staring out the window like he’s on the way to a root canal.
I hit the button for the radio, silencing the morning-show prattle. "Sweetie, please tell me. What is it? What's wrong?"
His gaze flicks to mine, sticks for a second, then slides away. He bounces his shoulders, even though he knows the answer. Ethan always knows the answer.
"Are you worried about the other kids?"
He frowns, and I know I've hit a nerve.
"Is someone bothering you again?"
I purposefully don’t say bully, the B-word that his teacher has been avoiding, along with the name of the little shit—though both of us knew who she was talking about. Miss Emma tried to blow off whatever happened as a silly squabble, one she promised she had under control. But that's part of the problem. She dismisses all the bullying as petty, silly squabbles, even when things turn bloody.
"If you tell me what happened, I can help you fix it. I'll talk to Miss Emma and make sure she's aware of the problem. Miss Emma and I are on your team here, you know. We want to help."
"It's nothing, okay? Nobody's bothering me."
"Are you worried about being away from home?"
Ethan frowns into the rearview mirror.
"Because you shouldn't, you know. Miss Emma will take good care of you."
No answer. He slumps in his seat, his palms cupping his elbows, his fingertips tapping out a nervous rhythm on his skin—a tic he's picked up when he doesn't want to talk about something.
We drive the rest of the way in silence.
By the time I race up the tree-lined drive that leads to Cambridge Classical Academy's parking lot, I don't have to check the dashboard clock to know it's well past seven. The yoga-toned mothers milling about on the lawn, the squealing kids swirling in circles around their legs, a pacing Miss Emma with her phone pressed to her ear. Their pinched faces say it all.
I pull in to the first spot I see, hit the brakes with a screech, and clamber out.
"Sorry," I call out over the roof of my car. "We're here, we're here. Sorry."
Ethan steps from the backseat, pausing to watch the kids race around the lawn. His face betrays his thoughts, his longing so obvious it's almost written in the air. It hits me right in the stomach where his body used to, back when I was nine months pregnant and he kicked so hard, his tiny foot would almost punch through my skin. My beautiful, brilliant son wants nothing more than to belong, and I don't know how to help him.
With a sigh, he reaches inside the car, heaves his backpack onto a shoulder.
I poke him on the other. "Hey, I got you a surprise."
The look he gives me is dubious. Ethan knows money is tight, and surprises are reserved for special occasions. "What kind of surprise?"
I pop the trunk. He tips his head around the side, taking a peek, and when he returns his gaze to mine, his eyes have blown wide. "You got me the mummy bag?"
I grin. "I got you the mummy bag." The one that had made him desperate with want when he’d spotted it at Walmart. Not because it comes with a flip-over hoodie and a built-in pillow, but because of the hidden pocket for the raggedy strip of baby blanket he doesn't want any of his classmates to know he can't sleep without. "Your you-know-what is already in there, zippered into the inside pocket."
The smile that creeps up his face is worth every hard-earned penny.
"Do you like it?"
He reaches in, clutches the roll with both arms to his chest. It dwarfs his tiny body, looking like it might topple him over. "It's totally awesome."
"Excellent. Then maybe you won't even need the other thing I brought you."
His eyes narrow into slits. "What other thing?"
I reach in the car, into my bag on the middle console, and pull out a worn, brown leather pouch.
Ethan recognizes it, and his face alights with excitement. "Your great-grandpa's compass?"
Or more accurately, his surveyor's compass. This one is from the mid-1800s, with a pair of brass flip-up sights on opposite ends, which my great-grandfather used to measure the wooded land along the border of Tennessee and Kentucky. It's probably not worth much, thanks to the web of scratches and the star-crack in the northeast corner, but since it's the last thing my mother gave me before she died, to me it means the world.
He grabs it from me now and presses it with both hands to the mummy bag. "I'll take real good care of it, Mom. I promise."
"For the record, I am not giving it to you—not yet. But you can borrow it for a couple of days if you think it might make being away from home a little easier." I bend down, looking him in the eye. "And to be honest, it makes me feel better knowing you have it. If you get lost, you can use that thing to find your way back home."
He gives me a happy grin. "I'm not gonna get lost."
"I know. But take it anyway."
Behind us, the bus starts up with a loud rumble, a sleek, black machine more suited for a rockstar and his entourage than a couple dozen screaming eight-year olds. Most of them are already inside, bleating their excitement from behind the tinted windows, telling us it's beyond time to go. Miss Emma turns, looks our way. Her gaze catches Ethan's, and she smiles and raises both hands in question. Are you coming or not?
We gather his stuff and hustle across the lawn.
At the edge of the lot, I squat, putting me face-to-face with Ethan. This farewell will be quick. Clean and clinical, as much for him as for me. "Be good. Listen to Miss Emma and the chaperones." I straighten his glasses, fix his rumpled collar. "And have the very best time."
He gives me a closed-lipped smile. "I'm pretty sure I can do that."
I think back to the first time I held him, in the hospital delivery room. He was so tiny, so pink and sticky and fragile. I remember how he looked up at me, his tiny mouth opening and closing against my arm like a fish, how that first swell of motherly love took my breath away. The hopes and intentions and fears...they're nothing compared to what I feel now.
"God, I'm going to miss you." I pull him into a hug, one that's quick and fierce and strong enough he can't wriggle away. I inhale his familiar smell—shampoo and detergent and the tiniest whiff of stinky puppy.
"You ready, Ethan?" Miss Emma, holding out a hand to him. She looks at me and smiles. "We'll take good care of him, I promise."
I nod and hand him off, telling myself he'll be fine. Ethan will be cared for and looked after. Maybe outside of schoolyard and classroom constraints, he'll even make a friend.
Please, God, let him make a friend.
With one last wave, Miss Emma nudges Ethan toward the rumbling bus. Hours from now, it will be this very moment I keep returning to, replaying the images over and over and over in my mind, not the part where my son disappears behind the smoky glass, but the part where an icy chill creeping up my spine almost makes me stop him.